Up until the EU Nice Summit in December, at which the Union's 15 member states decided on a framework agreement for internal reforms and a possible timetable for EU accession, there was a big question mark hanging over whether EU expansion, which will involve a dozen or so countries, would ever take place. Now the question is not if, but when, and a major obstacle has thus been removed on the path towards enlargement. The EU member states have said that they would like some candidate countries, the Czech Republic included, to join by the next European Parliament elections in 2004.
But, there a few major bones of contention left to be resolved before accession negotiations can be completed. Chief among them is the free movement of labour. There are fears in some EU countries, especially Germany and Austria, which share borders with several post-communist countries, that after EU expansion there will be a massive influx of cheap labour from countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Some politicians, such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, have suggested that a transition period of up to seven years be implemented, during which time citizens of candidate countries would not be able to seek work in the current 'EU 15'.
Last week, in the lead up to a visit to the Czech Republic by European Commission President Romano Prodi and EU enlargement commissioner Gunter Verheugen, almost all EU-related articles in the Czech press focused on the free movement of labour. The candidate countries feel that a transition period is unfair. At a press conference during his visit, Romano Prodi compared Czech fears that EU citizens will snap up all their property after expansion, to German and Austrian fears that they'll be flooded by cheap labour from the East:
The candidate countries say seven years is a long time for their workers to be denied entry to the EU, when there are, according to surveys, more EU citizens living in their countries than, say, Czechs or Poles in EU countries. At the same press conference, enlargement commissioner Gunter Verheugen sought to soothe Czech fears by stating a seven-year transition would include a review after a short period of time, and that concerns within the EU over the free movement of labour must be addressed:
The review period put forward by Gunter Verheugen is two years. But, for many politicians in the Czech Republic and throughout the candidate countries, this is still unacceptable. Jan Zahradil, the shadow Foreign Minister for the main opposition centre-right Civic Democrats - a party often dubbed Euro-sceptic by its critics - believes that this will create a second class of EU countries:
But according to Gunter Verheugen, transition periods are a normal part of the expansion process, and there are far more requests for such periods from candidate countries than from the member states:
The Social Democrat government is currently taking a more conciliatory stance on the issue than the opposition, especially Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who says he is willing to accept a short transition period:
But shadow Foreign Minister Jan Zahradil, and others both inside and outside his party, believe that the Czech negotiating stance in accession talks should be that no transition period is acceptable:
One of the key arguments made in the defence of Czech workers by Czech politicians is that Czechs are not highly mobile when it comes to employment, a point that is acknowledged on both sides. Studies and analyses have shown that an influx of labour is highly unlikely. Enlargement commissioner Gunter Verheugen says that the dispute over the free movement of labour, is not based on facts, but on politics:
But shadow Foreign Minister Jan Zahradil believes that the issue should dealt with by the European Commission, rather than by enforcing a transition period:
Foreign Minister Jan Kavan says that whether or not fears over the free movement of labour are justified, the Czech government is prepared to negotiate over the issue:
According to Mr Kavan, however, like with the issue of EU membership itself, the question may now not be if, but how long:
The two main Czech parties are also in disagreement over what impact the imposition of a transition period would have on local support for EU membership. While shadow Foreign Minister Jan Zahradil feels that it would weaken trust in the EU:
Foreign Minister Jan Kavan remains convinced that the Czechs can be persuaded of the benefits of EU membership: